Troops in Iraq aren't the only people who need support, said the wife of the man who will be commanding Alaska's National Guard soldiers there next year.
Laura Gilbert has been coordinating support services for families of the Southeast Alaska guardsmen since September, when she left her job as a special education assistant at Riverbend Elementary School. She said the support will be more important when the troops head off to Iraq early next year.
The 3rd Battalion of the Alaska Army National Guard is scheduled to send about 130 soldiers to Iraq early in 2005. About 70 come from the Southeast - from Skagway to Ketchikan - and about 30 come from Juneau, Gilbert said.
Families attached to military bases don't have to look for support, she noted. "The thing about Juneau is that (soldiers' families) don't know what a support group can be."
The center can be found at Juneau's National Guard headquarters, 355 Whittier St. People can contact her at 465-1347.
With troops leaving for training at Fort Bliss, Texas, the center has been there to help. Making sure there aren't any hitches in paychecks has been important, as has explaining the employment benefits due families of soldiers on full-time service, Gilbert said.
The assistance center is a place where people in the community can go to show their support for the unit while it is in Iraq.
"The community wants to help," Gilbert said. "We have phone calls from people asking what they can do."
She plans to organize a drive in February to prepare "care packages" to send to the soldiers.
Families will require assistance at a more personal level when the soldiers are sent to the heat of battle in Iraq, Gilbert said.
That may mean helping fix things at people's homes while the man of the house is away, she said. "We're looking for volunteers to make contact with the families weekly."
Moral support will be important, she said.
At Fort Bliss, she said, the soldiers had telephone access. "Their families could at least hear their voice day to day." She said losing that will make a big difference.
She knows it won't be easy. Her husband, Maj. Joel Gilbert, will be commanding the soldiers while she stays home to take care of their 8-year-old son and 9-year-old daughter.
She said they sat down and talked with their children about the deployment, and she is aware that the news coming out of Iraq can be bad.
"When we watch the news, we explain things," she said. "We're always 100 percent up front."
But she also knows going to Iraq is something her husband has to do. "It's totally him," she said. "He's always taken care of his soldiers.
"I'm here for him and the family," Gilbert said.
Tony Carroll can be reached at email@example.com.
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